Metronomes: The Debate for Bassists


Q: What do you think about Jeff Berlin’s approach to teaching music, specifically: no metronomes?

A: Uh oh… This could mean trouble!

Here’s my spin on it:

I think different things and methods work for different people. I disagree with Jeff’s statements that metronomes are bad for everyone. I think he has a bit of a habit of speaking in broad strokes, and life is not that dichotomous.

True, music is fluid and doesn’t adhere to strict meter. But one also has to have the ability to control their internal clock and have good time. Practicing with a click has given me and countless others better control over our ability to adhere to a tempo when we need to, while also increasing our ability to control slight shifts in tempo when we need to. It can also help shine a light on tendencies we have with tempo with regard to certain feels.

I know a lot of drummers who would benefit from practicing to a metronome, simply because it would highlight some of their bad habits – like speeding up on fills, slowing down slow tempos or speeding up on fast tempos and so on. A click can let you know that you aren’t playing in time when you thought that you were, thus bettering your understanding of your musical tendencies.

On the other hand, I also know a lot of drummers who came up in the drum core and have incredible time and technique, but play so precisely and stiff that it’s rarely musical to my ears.

Playing music in real time, with real people, means that the time is going to ebb and flow and it is up to us to be aware of the music and ebb and flow with it.

Time in music is fluid. But I believe that most of us benefit from a more rigid style of practice.

I do also believe that it is important to practice without a metronome too. Working through changes, for example, can often be better explored without any time at all.

The trick is to use the metronome to work on time and ditch it when time doesn’t matter as much. Personally, I love and will continue to use my metronome but there is no one answer for everybody.

Here goes… Readers, I’d love to hear your take. Share you thoughts in the comments.

Photo by Paco Vila

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  1. Sounds reasonable to me!

  2. With some projects I really like a metronome for some kind of stability, on other, more “free” projects, I hate it with a passion, most of the time (lol) I’m getting annoyed by the click, because I tend to over-focus on all those things together and I can’t play good anymore (feel, subtility, changes).

  3. con or sans, both have their place.

  4. I find people run into problems when they make some absolutist statements.

  5. Another fun way to work on keeping good time is to use a delay pedal. One of my favorite exercises is to set it for one repeat with one and a half beats of delay at a given tempo. (This would repeat the one on the and of beat two, and so on). Just start playing around and get a groove going. Staccato quarter notes get a cool sound with this setting. Then, get creative while trying to keep time with the delay. It’s a lot of fun and when your tempo speeds or lags it gets real messy fast.

  6. What Jeff said is still misunderstood, even in the quote above. He seems to be cool about the use of Metronomes if you choose to use it for ear training subdivision of the beat. What he does say is that your don’t get good Timing by using a metronome, that comes from developing a sense of phrasing and internal feel of the beat. I get this. When my band records we use a click…more for the purposes of SYNCING to other equipment, but it’s useful for me to monitor where I am on the click..but I sure as hell didn’t learn about groove playing with a click, and if you track live, and everyone is on the groove and not on the click…well, screw the click. Listen to the Stones. What is so offensive about what he says?

    Jeff gets specific an NOT long winded here:

    • Noone, except people trying to crap on the use of metronomes, makes claims as to it helping someone develop “groove”. I learned to play and developed great internalized time by playing with albums and with real people in person. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing to be aware when you tend to speed up/slow down. Being aware is important, and if you can’t tell the difference, the metronome is a tool that can help with that awareness. But the way Jeff *frames* the “argument”- of course he’s right. He states the terms than tears the argument down. I teach my students to use a metronome along with playing with albums to help them be aware of where their interal time is, not as a substitute for it. To each their own.

  7. I use a metronome all the time while practicing, for everything I do–I find it’s very helpful in gradually refining the accuracy of my playing. But I don’t use one when recording or playing live, although I have played with drummers who were working off a clic track. Of COURSE we have to learn to play together by playing together, and that’s where the groove lies, but I can only see an upside to having a more metronomic sense of time. Once accurate timing is developed, one can still choose to “groove” more, sometimes quite consciously so, but if you haven’t made the effort to pratice with a metronome, you may never realize how poor your timing is, and it’s a whole lot easier to choose to play a bit more loosely than it is suddenly, in the moment, to play more accurately.

  8. Sometimes I practice to a drum machine. Sometimes I use my bass trainer and work on specific tunes. Someimes I work on scales. And sometimes I play to vinyl just for the fun of it. I don’t use a metromome specifically, but why not if it helps and its fun?

    • Good foundation for any musician. Brett, one time we practiced the same song 2-3 times in the basement on Lincoln Street and Mike Baylis kept such great time on the drums that we played it the same exact time each time. Now that was impressive!

  9. I’ve debated this with Jeff before. I think metronomes are great for some people and not for others. You have to take it for what it is – just a tool. Nothing ever beats playing with live musicians. As an aside, I really hate click tracks!

  10. I’m a click man through and through – helps develop time and groove in an isolated setting so that when it comes to whipping out that fat groove or burning lick with a great band, it sounds 10 times better.

  11. Anthony Wellington wrote a nice article on using metronomes a couple of years ago.

  12. I’m going to say three things about this: 1) I can guarantee that no bass student these days is in danger of turning into a robot from too much practice, with a metronome or without 2) the increasing use of click tracks in looping, in the studio and live pretty much make working with a metronome a requirement in today’s music 3) I attended a Jeff Berlin clinic a few years ago. the basic message was “don’t do this, don’t play like that…but don’t let anyone tell you how to play”. So there you go…

    • the thing about metronomes is, if you can learn to play with a metronome, then you should be able to play with any human.

    • no.. a human is not a metronome.
      humans make mistakes.. humans naturally slow down/speed up (very small amounts)
      if you want to play along with other people – practice that
      if you want to play along with a metronome – practice that

    • I don’t mean to be obtrusive.. but you could be the best damn player in the world (while using your metronome) and then take it away… maybe you’ve gotten used to playing with the metronome to a point where your almost reliant on it.
      Long story short — It would be wise to practice both with and without a metronome.

    • Jeff Hampton – Again, there is almost ZERO danger of the average bassplayer or other musician becoming “reliant” on a metronomes. (would that this was a problem…) There is however, a whole lot of bad time and bad feel out there that can be helped by using one.

  13. I say play to the click to learn the rhythm, then half the tempo on the click still playing at tempo, then half it again, keep halfing the tempo on the metronome until you’re playing phrases per beat. This helps internalize the tempo, it also allows room for expression. Playing along to records is great, but then you just pick up the other players bad habits.

  14. I agree that I wish more drummers would practice with one. After all, we have to go with the drummer for better or worse.

  15. Here’s a question: Who is the timekeeper in a band?

    • Drummer……..sorry………..married (and divorced) one ;)

    • Anyone else want to be wrong? (sorry, Heather. I’m proving a point)

    • Everyone has to be a timekeeper…. we just tend to follow either the Drums or the Bass….. but that doesn’t put them in charge.

    • Ok Paulie….you go for it :) LOL

    • You rocked it, Neil. It’s EVERYONE’S responsability to keep the time. Time is a consensus, and good internalized time allows us to come to the consensus without being a prat about “who’s right”. Make it feel good, and all will unfold like some unfolding thingie that’s good and junk.

    • And a metronome *MAY* be a part of developing that internalized thing, though it is a many-pathed journey.

    • I’ve often wondered with the music so loud and the clubs so dark, how do you even see/hear a metronome to keep you all on time?

    • I like metronomes, but I use them differently then most. Imagine you song has a tempo of 120bpm… that’s 2 beats per second. Now if you set your metronome at 60, but play at 120… you have to “feel” the subdivision. Now set the metronome at 30bpm….. now you have to feel four times as many beats of subdivision. How about 15bpm? 7.5bpm? 3.75bpm? (OK you need a pretty special metronome to do that) but imagine if your tune is at 120bpm and you are only feeling a pulse from the metronome once every eight bars…. and you get that you can hit that baby on the money…… that is unquestionably solid internalized time.

    • the timekeeper in the band is that lucky sideman getting paid by the hour. Or the one who has to pay him.

    • Just try bounce metronome and you have all these options: shutting any beat you want, or many beats you wants, you can also work on polyrythms, while keeping the same bpm on the screen, this is really the ultimate metronome…

  16. Aren’t metronomes just like rulers or straight edges? I mean the tool, not the political or social versions… I don’t think you’d find many visual artists who would disagree that a ruler is a useful tool, and designers would say it’s essential, as something to measure against, but only occasionally does it find its way into the actual artwork. Kind of how I feel about metronomes: great tools, but it’s wrong to let them dictate the art.

    • tick tick tock lol Mac is passing a test run day three. Can’t find things, hmmm may go blind . Need tools we talked of, I knew launguage written low base tones undetectable to the human race besides dogs and cts see perfectly correct . The spell ws broke..Chelsea 69′ kisses sweet gent pal of mine. ugh g’night send music plz biotch loves this classical cello or theromone sp? ugh yer nutbar bat shit crazy neighbourhood seamless lines with photo shop. Hippy pot rock. smiles xx

    • the facts are wrong Dr. @[100000482058925:2048:Zeus John Paul]

    • Why did you mention me. All my art is created without using any form of ruler or measure its all created solely by eye and inspiration

    • Learning to draw a straight line didn’t prevent Picasso from not drawing a straight line.

  17. I am now 39 years old and I started playing when I was ten. I started actually using and practicing with a metronome about a year ago, here is why: I shifted from being a bassist (supporting the low end of a band) to being a solo bassist. Not having a drummer has made all of my previously hidden mistakes come out in the great wide open, bare for all to see. I have found that some songs sound great if you ditch the perfection and go with feel based on the melody or the lyrics, but you absolutely have to be able to pull it off for the songs where it does matter. Also, recording tracks for other musicians requires that you can follow their click (only a valid argument if you record tracks for other musicians though).

  18. Learn music itself without a time keeper. The right note is more important that the wrong note played in time. Then when the piece of music has been learned and all the notes are right – practice for performance with a time keeper. Ideally a drummer.

    • Vic Wooten in a dvd says exactly the opposite and proves it by playing all the wrong notes in a wicked groove. Then, both points of view might work.

    • Do you have a link? I’d like to see that. But I would argue that there are no wrong notes in an ad lib situation. Intentional wrong notes are right notes.

    • Its on this video, but after what is depicted. He’s saying “Don’t be afraid of the wrong notes”:
      And after that (or before, but in that segment) he plays 2 solos: the first with all the right notes but everything else off (groove, tempo, dynamics, you call it) and then another with everything right, except for the notes. Night and day.

      If I find it I’ll repost.

    • Certainly for bass I’m with Victor – it’s all about time, whats the point in knowing the notes if you can’t groove?

    • Yeah, I kind of see the wisdom (I’ve never advocated metronomes) but I think the right rhythm is far, far more important than the right notes.

  19. I’m kind of blind to my own “mistakes” yet, as I never practiced with a metro. But singing in a choir with an awesome conductor also gives me this insight: the slightest changes in the tempo (specially during time) have a great impact on the song (and the song’s impact on the listener!). Not an easy task at all (specially if not playing solo but with other instruments or even at the studio) nor something to use in all genres, but it’s a tool. You might want to use it sometimes and the metronome just won’t let it happen.
    Thanks to all commenters for such good food for thought.

  20. The metronome absolutely has its place when working on things like technique, speed and agility. But things like feel and groove are honed best by playing along with others either live or recorded. Personally, I enjoy using a drum machine (with an adjustible tempo) rather than the monotony of a metronome.

    • I agree technique, speed and agility are crucial for bassists as well as drummers. I will say several drummers that I have played with that lack rudimentary drumming skills, like keeping a steady groove, don’t use all of the tools that are available to them. One of those tools being a metronome. On the flip side some drummers that had a steady groove that I have spoken with didn’t practice with a metronome. Personally I have found that as a bass player time keeping can be improved with a metronome. I also love using a drum machine to expand my talents and to continue to increase my ability to play multiple genres and not be a one trick pony.

  21. I think the biggest benefit in using a metronome is that it helps people get comfortable with locking with a external time source, ie: click track, drummer, and other musicians. I believe it also helps in hearing what strict time sounds & feels like.

  22. In my opinion, as a former drummer in high school now turned Bass player, Defiantly use a metronome. The bass an the drummer has to have a collective connection [The Groove] as The Great Victor Wooten States. They are the glue that holds the rhythm section of a Band together. By using the metronome you can have that basic format to play over. This will give you the rhythmic timing to work out a phrase, a section or the hole song. Yes! It would be a great tool to use in your arsenal to practice with!

    • Buddy Rich says the drummer is what gets it all going. Everyone else just needs to keep up. He was an amazing drummer.

    • Yes Donnie! He was a true technical musician. One of the Best in my book! I loved when Jerry Lewis an Buddy Rich would Battle on the trap set. Almost as good as when Animal of the Muppet’s Battled Buddy!

  23. I agree with Bryan Beller’s recent BP mag remarks on metronomes. My metronomes were named Bonham, Brewer, Baker, Kunkel, Benjamin, etc. YMMV…

  24. Aaron Gibson is right. It is all about Timing. He’s an Awesome Player too. (Shameless Plug)
    For what ever reason some people are afraid of those “Ticky Things”.
    If you simply approach a Metronome as a Drum Machine with out the Bells and Whistles the Intimidation it seems to bring with it can be Tamed. It’s just a Click track in a box.
    If you going to be a Bass Player you may very well have to play along with someone or something if not alone someday.
    When you can keep better time than the Drummer you will be OK.

  25. A metronome is a tool. It can either be a crutch to your playing or an enhance to your overall musicianship. Being able to play with and without one is an essential skill to the modern musician. If you’re a working musician you’ll be expected to be able to do both more often than not, therefor, practice both.

  26. I like this old observation from Monk that I discovered a few years back. He says for each tune there’s someone in the band who owns that tune, who has mastery over it. The band defers to this individual and is guided by him.It doesn’t matter what instrument he plays. And it it by no means always the band leader who does the leading.

  27. Well said sir. Jeff is out there sharpening his fangs as I write this. Jeff has the habit of assuming that everyone is his student.

  28. If you don’t use the metronome you can’t funk! no way! But there’s something I want to say as well:
    I practice my electric bass along with metronome quite often for every chop of mine but because it happens that I play with people who don’t practice with metronome, sometimes it feels weird.
    I don’t know whether if that could be me accelerating or it’s them keeping it at their human pace…well I guess I have human tempo perception as well but here’s my verdict:

    You practice using the metronome and playing with other musicians who do = Tight band.

    You don’t practice at all with metronome and play with other musicians who do = They will tell you off. you will probably not be able to keep up with them.

    You don’t practice at all with metronome and play with musicians like you = amateurs!

    the Metronome in my view is definitely a machine but you can swing around it and get your own vibe on time without becoming a robot..
    And the best players of the planet couldn’t become the best without a metronome :)

    • I’ve been playing for 40 years, when I first started learning to play I did use a metronome, it helps to have a sense of timing, but the absolute best thing I ever did to improve my abilities was to start playing with other musicians, I encourage all musicians to play with others regardless of their ability. I’m not a guitar nazi, I will play with anyone and not tell them off, even if they can’t keep up. Instead I try to coach them or give them pointers. The last thing I want to do is discourage a new musician. We were all at that place one time in our lives. Everyone deserves music, inspiration helps those folks that are just starting out. Therefore it troubles me to read the last part of your comment. Use a metronome if you need to, it is a useful tool, but it’s just a tool and not a necessity.

    • Yes, sorry if i did jump to those conclusions that shortly, doesn’t apply to newbies.
      Nobody at the beginning is a master and i did definitely enjoy my time as limited musician with my limited pals. But when you want to become professional at it, in my view, everything changes and i’ve seen people along my way that scream to the world that they are the best in what they do but usually cannot even follow a click on a recording.
      They say “it puts me off” or “like a machine”. The difference is that them, they “work” with the local band every now and then and play for free, the session player works and makes regular profit from different events and concerts because the organizations who arrange gigs in the area know that when that band or particular group of musicians are on, music will be quality. So people are more likely to attend the show. It’s just a simple concept for me.

      In any case, i don’t want to discourage people to play without click because it’s true that people together can time each other and definitely it’s nice to try everything you can out with every musician you can. I love jam sessions! But I have found myself as well in the sort of situation “keep an eye on him” during gigs, just because more skilled people than me were fearing my steadiness. Some times being told off helps you growing balls,
      if you really have them you’ll study more, you’ll get better. if you don’t react that way well.. think whether if you wanna make a job or hobby out of music. Miss Music don’t care anyway, it’s your personal choice!! :)

    • I’m just a weekend warrior, doing this for kicks. My band has a gig almost every weekend in the year. It’s December now but we’re booking shows in April and May. We can fill most of the bars we do gigs at, but prefer to play at outdoor parties and festivals during the warmer months. I don’t have a problem getting a quality sound when playing with other musicians, but I think that’s because I’ve been playing since I was in 4th grade and I’ll be 51 in a few days. I’m forced to have this just be a hobby due to my health, I’m on dialysis and losing my ability to walk among other things due to fibrosis. I have the best band of friends that know my condition and know how I feel about making music, and they share my dream. When the fibrosis finally takes out the use of my fingers, I plan on playing hand drums. My music will stop when i do.

      Now, about the metronome….I think it’s wise to get an idea of what your personal timing is and compare that to the metronome. When you’re practicing by yourself a metronome can help get those difficult riffs up to speed. A metronome is a useful tool. When you’re playing in a band it could help get everyone in sync. It’s a good timing mechanism, but it’s just a tool. Play with everyone, it doesn’t matter if you’re better than they are, or vice versa. You’re sense of timing will improve the more you do this.

  29. Live performance [should] require less dependence on the click…but -any- recording (digital or analog) the click is your friend.To say “I’m just that good” shows volumes of ego , as the engineer quantizes the entire track…timing is critical in -every- facet of life.

  30. A good bass player has to feel confortable in both situations, with metro or without. Both are helpfull.

  31. Rhythm & Time as learned by White Europeans…

  32. Really? without a good sense of timing, it’s close to impossible to be a good bassist in todays music. There is no Conductor in most cases to keep the music cohesive. When one is certain of ones place in the peice, one can weave in and out of the meter to create an even better should I dare to say Swagger to the peice. That’s what swing is all about as well as funk!

  33. I’ve been playing in bands for 20+ years and I believe practicing to a click can only benefit your playing ability. Not only the ability to stay ON the beat, but also to learn how to play behind the beat and ahead of the beat. The ability to move through the groove without losing the groove makes playing an awesome experience! While a click track can be boring, there are great drum machines available that are fun to play with… learning to play this way can only help you down the road when you jam with a real drummer. :-) Just do it!

  34. One of the best, and most useful, classes I had at Berklee was Timekeeping with Rich Appleman. The main thing we learned, and sticks with me today, is how to use the metronome to exercise subdividing beats. From whole notes to 13, 14 and 15 notes in a beat, practicing these with a metronome guarantees you’re playing correctly, whereas playing without a metronome, not so much. Sure, you played 8 notes in a beat, but the size of your beats of a bar got longer and longer, fundamentally changing what you are attempting to play. Then there were the games “moving” the click to represent the backbeat or upbeats to train you to groove with odd accents and meters. For me this has been replaced by BFD drums and GarageBand, but whether its a drum machine, an app or metronome, they’re tools to tool help sharpen important skills.

  35. A Met is god wherein you track the top of the beat -then play in front, on top, and after -groove/swing-like Matteo said.

  36. I think a more “natural” sound comes from playing with other musicians, I encourage young players to do this as much as they can regardless of their ability. All the musicians will obtain some knowledge of group timing from just playing together. Each musician will eventually find their particular spot in the overall sound which is something that cannot be taught, and they’ll also learn to continue through the song even if they’ve made a mistake.

  37. Wading in…Use the metronome as a tool. Play right on the point of the time. Push the time playing on the front lip of the pocket. Bring it back to the point. Play slightly behind the beat, then bring it back. With my students it’s a “Subway Elf” (metro gnome) Corny but it works to hate it less.

  38. I believe metronomes have their place, but are not the “be all, end all” of time. I think most beginners need to use a metronome as *part of their practice regimen, and that it even helps old dogs like myself to check themselves against a metronome from time to time. As I record tracks for my upcoming CD, we are using a click on certain songs, although not on all of them. If I was unable to play to a click, I’d be in deep trouble. Likewise, if I’m working with a drummer who has assumed the responsibility of time-keeper, I need to be able to mesh with him without improper pushing or pulling. So, even after 43 years on bass, I continue to pull out my metronome from time to time… just to stay in shape.

  39. I’ve been playing bass for almost four years, have a damn good ear for time, and I’ve been keeping the beat for most of the drummers I’ve ever played with. I have never once played to a metronome, it messes me up and kills the groove. I can’t be the only one who hates metronomes, can I?

  40. An overseen aspect in practising to a metronome or steady beat, is that it strengthens right/left hand and finger coordination. And if you’re trying to learn a difficult say bebop tune, the metronome is simply indispensable. Another fun exercise I used years ago with a drum machine was to have it playing two bars steady, one bar without sound, and the last bar off beat.

  41. There is a big difference between ‘tempo’ and ‘time’. Tempo is the measured speed that musician(s) are trying to follow. Time is how the subdivisions are weighted and accented. That creates the feel that makes a jazz tune feel one way and a country tune feel another. Classical musicians might accent the quarter note of a 6/8 pattern and it sounds like a march, and jazz musicians might accent the eigth note and it swings.

    If the band is all on the same page in how the Time is being felt, then the Tempo will usually take care of itself. If one person is feeling it differently the whole groove falls apart. Whether is speeds up or slows down has very little to do with how the groove feels. Take Herbie Hancock’s ‘Chameleon’ from the HeadHunters album. By the end of the piece it is drastically faster than when it started but the groove is still very strong.

    The modern obsession with perfection in recording (using click tracks and overdubs) has done nothing to make songs groove better. If anything, modern songs have much less groove then they did in the 70’s or earlier.

  42. LOL, lots of cats just can’t play with the metronome so they diss using it. I use one most times to practice as I work out parts and especially when I’m one on one with the guitarist. Once we find our pocket with the metronome its like riding a bicycle. Start playing straight then ‘move forward, then back on the beat. eventually you will be swinging against that thing…..then you can throw it away…LOL!

  43. To say you don’t need a tool that will facilitate the development of an inherent and critical aspect of bass playing is tantamount to saying you don’t need to develop learning by ear. It’s a silly statement.

  44. David Pinto

    I think Jeff speaks in broad strokes and in polarities. Its black and white. If one is going to make dogmatic claims about how the brain learns (in this case meter), then without real research that examines the effect of the stimulus on the level of neurons, its all just anecdote.
    My own observation is that Jeff likes to say “the metronome doesnt teach good time”. In fact, it may not. Time to me means “groove” or “feel”. The metronome can, though, teach good meter… evenness. In performing a piece of music, It can show you where you are rushing or slowing down. Its pretty simple and obvious. Without external information to inform these tendencies while practicing music, how would one know?
    Also, not every human has the same innate musical capabilities. Maybe JEFF BERLIN doesnt need a metronome, but how can he know and prescribe that everyone else doesnt need one? He isnt a neuroscientist. Everything he claims is purely anecdotal!